Friday, October 4, 2019

Jessye Norman: legacy

Matt Campbell—AFP/Getty Images
By Naomi André, Seattle Opera Scholar in Residence 

There are so many things to think about as we celebrate the legacy of Jessye Norman’s life. Her passing this week came as such an unwelcomed shock to me not because of anything I knew about her health, but because as I entered adulthood in the 1980s, Jessye Norman had always been someone I could count on to be there. Many people who know her roles in opera or heard her perform live, know of the velvety, warm sonic soundscape of her voice. But it was much more than just a voice—she embodied a presence for me, and, I suspect, for many others.

Her voice took up space—no matter where I was in the concert hall or opera house (and I heard her most frequently in the large space of the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City), you felt her voice as she sang. She was a formidable presence on stage as she was both tall and stately. But what made me feel so discombobulated after hearing that she died this past Monday afternoon was that the presence I took for granted—through her voice, scholarly ventures, humanitarian efforts, and educational outreach—would no longer be guiding and moving us forward. I always knew that Ms. Norman was quite involved with helping the Girl Scouts; I since learned that she served on many boards for homelessness and HIV/AIDS, and helped found, open, and sustain the Jessye Norman School of the Arts—an after-school program for economically disadvantaged young people in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.

Norman sang and curated concerts on contemporary music. She was an early interpreter of Poulenc and Janácek in the United States and seemed to delight in incorporating Ellington, gospel and spirituals on her formal concert programs. She commissioned works on texts by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, and  integrated—really brought together—both the leading stages of the world as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black churches, and community arenas into her career. She was one of the premiere performers of Wagner’s Sieglinde and Kundry, Strauss’s Ariadne, the Woman in Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Bartok’s Judith, and Berlioz (Les Nuits d’été, Cassandre and Didon). I always loved that her voice was never easily categorizable; she is what some might call a “Zwischenfach” voice that encompassed both soprano and mezzo soprano roles. It felt as though her voice went that extra mile to do more than was anticipated; she gave you more than you expected, and the richness you secretly yearned for. One of her signature encores, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” helped you hear the capaciousness of that statement in a new way. The roundness of her voice seemed to tether the whole world in its lasso. You felt warmly embraced.

Though Norman retired from the opera stage in the 1990s, she continued to influence the music world through innovative projects, even up through this year. She was not afraid of thinking of “black music”—particularly jazz, gospel, and spirituals—as part of the same story as classical music in the United States. In December 2018 she was part of the interdisciplinary project Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name! that was presented by National Sawdust. Even during this past summer I know that she was in conversations to continue this project with future further productions.

I miss her terribly already. Though I only met her once, briefly, in Toronto after the Glenn Gould Foundation honored her with a lifetime achievement award earlier this year, I have always felt as though she opened up a space for me. As a young Black woman in college and moving beyond, she let me know it was OK to be in the opera house. I looked forward to sitting in Carnegie Hall and other venues to hear her recitals. I eagerly bought her recordings (on CD) to learn the repertoire—both canonic and trailblazing—through the openhearted welcoming sound of her voice. I felt it say “Come on dear one, join me in this wonderful musical place.”

Seattle Opera's Scholar in Residence, Dr. Naomi André is a musicologist, writer, and the author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, which The New York Times describes as “A necessary exploration of how race has shaped the opera landscape in the United States and South Africa.” Additionally, André works as a professor at the University of Michigan, teaching Women’s Studies, Afroamerican/African Studies, and more.